The one where a neighbour starts a poster campaign against you

We didn’t initially exchange pleasantries, much as we tried. I’m too sheltered to think that when someone says they are going to call the police, they actually will. An officer’s rap on the door finally woke me up to how unwelcome we were. 

We understood why: a young couple moving into a holiday home in a beauty spot during lockdown, outrageous! I’d be suspicious. However, we had legitimate reasons that the council, medical professionals and local police all agreed with. But our neighbours didn’t.

It’s claustrophobic to be confined within four, albeit very generously proportioned, walls. Yet, that’s what shielding required. It’s a whole new phobia when you’re brought to tears by posters covering the note you left outside to say you’re shielding. 

Before we were told to shield we were happy: spending time with family and going for coastal walks in our own headline-drawing beauty spot. We didn’t want to move there in these circumstances, and were very glad to leave — not least because of those posters.

Our experience has left me with two reflections. Firstly, how horrific it would be to face more sustained, long-term intimidation. I can’t comprehend how people endure it. 

My second reflection is about how much we seek to justify our actions. A significant aspect of our anguish came from our story being unheard and misunderstood. Our very presence was seen as illegitimate. We just wanted to talk, so they could understand our reasons. Then, surely, we would be justified in their eyes. 

It’s hard to have a conversation when anything you say is met with aggressive shouts. The only conversations we managed were within those four walls, as we sought to reassure each other that we were legitimate and justified — ‘We did the right thing, right?’

Posters aside, why did justifying ourselves matter so much? Yes, we wanted to shield in peace. But we could do that by keeping the doors shut. It was so much more than that. We needed to be seen to be in the right, by people we’d never met before, who liked shouting at us.

The same need dictates how I recounted our experiences here. If this is well written, every word, detail and reason should persuade you that my view of reality is correct. I need to be seen to be in the right, by you, a person I may never have met before. How ridiculous!

Our desire for justification is not a shielding-specific phenomenon. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues we use reasoning to provide an after-the-event account to justify ourselves to others. We often generate reasons after we’ve already acted, to make our actions acceptable to others. Or as he puts it, “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” 

Our need to garner approval and be justified in the eyes of others enters every corner of our lives. What you do, where you live, what you wear, the fact you are so tired from how many hours you work — all prove you are something. Social media has put self-justification on steroids: #LivingMyBestLife

Morality is especially open to self-justification. Most people say they are a ‘good person’. We ignore our flaws and make the rules of morality suit us. For example, I neglected to include that we chose to shield in a luxurious beauty spot over a smaller, remote alternative. It’s harder for my internal politician to gain votes if I include that detail.

The justifications we give are normally based around the image we want to portray. The problem is, we all make our own rules and criteria, as I’ve done telling my story. Everyone’s internal politician leaves us thinking we are above average. Here’s a test: you do think you are above average, right? Be honest. Statistically speaking, how deluded 50% of us must be!

Seldomly honest and intriguing is the person who absconds from self-justification — who responds that they aren’t good. Perhaps we’re not always the best at it, but that’s the position Christians across the globe necessarily must adopt. A Christian’s first step into the faith is to deny their ability to justify themselves. Jesus claimed a Christian cannot be good and justifying humanity was his raison d’être alone. Christians believe that it’s only Jesus who makes us right with God, not any actions or arguments we typically use to justify our existence.

I tried to be justified in my neighbours’ eyes and failed. As a Christian, I am forced to come to terms with my own proclivity to self-justification or, in less obnoxious language, my B.S. radar. I know I’m flawed, prone to self-deception and the need to have others’ approval. Perhaps that’s why I wrote this article!

Jesus does away with all of that: there’s nothing I can do to justify myself. I have to be justified by him. I’m forgiven, I’m fully known and approved by my creator. It’s a beautifully freeing place to be. 

But I’m still learning to embrace it, as my attempts to justify myself to my neighbours demonstrate. If this experience taught me anything, it’s that there’s very little I can do to change other people’s perception of me. So I have to trust myself to God, who knows all my motives, pure and impure, and have faith that it’s Jesus alone who justifies me.

Ben Palmer

Ben Palmer
Ben works for a mentoring charity in London, but boasts a CV that includes a year of living as a monk.

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